Intoxication Culture and the Need for Connection in Recovery by: Sarah Frank Jarvis, LMFT ATR-BC CGP

I recently ordered several zines (self-published, limited edition booklets, made by individuals to share personal thoughts, feelings, and interests) from the Internet on the topics of recovery and sobriety. I work and personally participate in the Recovery milieu of substance and process addictions and compulsions, incorporating both abstinence and harm reduction models to provide support and education and, as a long time fan of zine arts and culture, I wanted to see what was out there regarding this issue, both for my own inspiration and to bring into work I do with my clients and colleagues. When my package arrived I eagerly spread the zines ranging in size from ¼ to ½- letter-size paper, folded and stapled into pamphlets, out across my couch and read through each one. 

Reading through my new treasures, I discovered a term I was not familiar with, “Intoxication Culture”. Through the lens of Social Justice, this term generally refers to the culturally normative consumption of alcohol (and some drugs that are more socially acceptable), in spaces and contexts where the perceived majority of people are able to partake without problem. According to Clementine Morrigan, from their zine “make all good things fall apart #2; from-the-margins” 

“Intoxication culture is more than just the regular inclusion of drinking at events. It is the production of a standard of normalcy. This standard of normalcy, if we can live up to it, produces a position of power. The regular comments which assume and imply that social drinking is a normal, desirable and expected behavior consistently work to other people who can’t or don’t drink socially. Some of these people include: people who do not drink for religious reasons, people who have legal stipulations which require that they don’t drink such as terms of bail or probation, addicts and alcoholics who practice abstinence, and some addicts and alcoholics who are currently using but who cannot control the amount they use, people who can’t drink due to health conditions or medications they are taking, people who are breastfeeding or pregnant, people who choose to stay away from drinking due to history of addiction/alcoholism in their families, people who have trauma related to alcohol consumption, people who do not drink for political reasons and people who do not enjoy drinking. “

(Morrigan, 2014, p. 10)

For people in recovery from addictions and compulsive behaviors, the process of making social connections can be a daunting one, especially if they previously relied upon substances or behaviors to feel more comfortable socially. Sadly, there are many people who do not find (or know about) supportive sober spaces where social connections can be made and they ultimately fall back into patterns of unhealthy compensatory behaviors. In 12-Step programs it is encouraged to actively engage in social connection through “fellowship” with others in 12-Step recovery. This can entail going out to eat, getting coffee, or participating in planned outings with other sober/”clean”/abstinent individuals. There are even sober dances organized as part of 12-step conventions. However, these spaces are not necessarily inclusive of all those from the list Clementine Morrigan identified, namely individuals practicing moderation or harm reduction.

In a TED Talk I recently watched (which many of you have likely seen or heard about), “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”, journalist Johann Hari shares about his personal quest to find a better way to treat addiction. His talk centers around the importance of community and social connections in helping addicts transfer there dependence on substances and processes to fulfilling our human needs for connection; “humans have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that, because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.” (Hari, 2015) 

Hari (2015) shares about a specific experiment in the 1970’s performed by Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver, where he modified an earlier experiment done with rats to show the addictive nature of heroin and cocaine by lacing the rats’ water with it and offering it side by side with regular un-laced water. In the earlier experiment the rats all showed preference for the drug-laced water and kept consuming it until they died. Professor Alexander, noticing that the rats in this experiment were always isolated and in barren cages, decided to build a much larger cage, which he called “Rat Park”, that was filled with toys, comfy bedding, treats, and other rats. He performed a similar experiment of offering two water bottles, one with drug-laced water and the other with just plain water. In his experiment, Professor Alexander found that in Rat Park none of the rats preferred the drug-laced water and all of them survived. He attributed this to the availability of pleasurable activities and social interaction. If we compare this experiment to the treatment of addiction for humans, it seems much more likely that those who are provided access to a supportive community and beneficial resources will have a much greater chance of recovery than those who are punished, ostracized, criminalized, shamed, or isolated. 

So how can we, especially those with the privilege of being among the majority, create safer spaces that not only include but support those that intoxication culture leaves out? This warrants ongoing discussion and exploration of different facets of inclusivity of those who are marginalized as well as the different needs of these individuals based on the varying types of substance and process addictions and compulsive behaviors, as well as how “sobriety” is defined for each of them. Group therapy can be a powerful catalyst for connection and healing, especially if the group is specifically geared towards people who struggle with addiction or are in recovery. The bottom line is that connection is crucial to our wellbeing and especially to those who are “othered” by cultural and societal norms. My hope is that this conversation will continue to grow and that we can find solutions that promote safer connection, healing, and universal growth and awareness.

Sources Cited:

1. Hari, J. (2015 ). Everything you think you know about addictions is wrong. TED Talks.

2. Morrigan, C. (2014). make all good things fall apart #2. [Zine series, from-the-margins].

Elana Clark-Faler
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